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Brian Kennedy: Cancer took my brother and made some friends abandon me

As he records new music, Brian Kennedy tells of his health battle, reuniting with estranged brother Bap before his death, and why he despairs of the DUP

Brian Kennedy
Brian Kennedy
Brian Kennedy singing at the dress rehearsal before the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals
Bap Kennedy
Brian Kennedy at his laptop
Brian Kennedy
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Brian Kennedy was well aware of the bitter irony that day. He was about to meet his estranged older brother for the first time in years, and one of the last times ever.

Music - a comforting, connecting medium for so many of us - had actually driven a wedge between them.

But cancer, that merciless, indiscriminate devastator of families, would reunite the pair.

It was 2016 and Martin Christopher Kennedy - better known simply as 'Bap' - had just been diagnosed with an incurable form of the disease. It was clear he didn't have long to live.

A few weeks after his brother's terminal diagnosis Brian was presented with the shock news that he, too, had a life-threatening illness.

Rather than share this information with Bap, Brian decided to keep it to himself; it would be an emotional enough reunion without this added complication.

"I didn't tell Bap because when I went to see him he had already been diagnosed, he knew it was incurable and I wanted our meeting to be about him and his journey," the now cancer-free Brian tells the Belfast Telegraph.

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"I was only newly diagnosed and I knew that mine was treatable. Sadly, his wasn't."

He adds: "You know, in a strange way cancer was a good thing, because it made us put our difficulties aside.

"Bap and I were never close; by the time I'd reached six years old he'd already gone to live with our granny in Andersonstown.

"I didn't see very much of him, never spent that much time with him, really.

"Also, I was the only gay child in my household and I think a lot of people found that very difficult.

"Music was the thing that kind of brought us together and, interestingly, it was the thing that split us apart, because we were so different in terms of where our music was going."

Brian Kennedy showing his stoma bag on Nolan Live
Brian Kennedy showing his stoma bag on Nolan Live

It was no secret that the brothers, two of six children born to post office worker Jim Kennedy and his wife Lily, didn't get on, either through natural sibling rivalry or basic professional envy.

Bap was regarded by his peers as a musical genius, and when those peers include Van Morrison and Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler (who was so impressed with Bap that he agreed to produce one of his albums), that's quite an accolade.

But it was mellifluously-voiced younger brother who got to tour with and sing with Van, most notably in front of 100,000 at Belfast City Hall and an estimated worldwide TV audience of a billion, during President Bill Clinton's pivotal 1995 pre-Christmas peacemaking visit to Northern Ireland.

It was Brian who represented Ireland in Eurovision the following year, who sang during George Best's funeral at Stormont in 2005 and for the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the same venue seven years later.

And it was Brian's albums, not those of former Energy Orchard stalwart and gifted songwriter Bap, which graced the upper echelons of the charts in the Nineties, and whose concerts attracted the bigger crowds.

Yet it was Bap (nicknamed after the bread rolls baked at the nearby Kennedy's) who'd given the teenage Brian his start in professional music as a singer in his band Ten Past Seven.

Brian Kennedy with grandmother Nellie Elliott
Brian Kennedy with grandmother Nellie Elliott

But with the younger brother's lilting, high-pitched tones unsuited to rock music, that awkward collaboration was never going to work.

Brian eventually decamped for London, where his career reached levels his brother could only dream of after he caught the eye of Spice Girls svengali Simon Fuller.

But all that was water under the bridge when the Falls Road natives met up in Belfast's Marie Curie hospice in August 2016, three months before Bap succumbed to pancreatic and bowel cancer on November 1 aged 54 - less than two years older than Brian is now.

"We would just sit with each other and all of that... I just didn't think it was appropriate to say anything; I wanted that meeting to be about him," explains Dublin-based Brian.

"He eventually found out about my diagnosis, because our brother Stuart told him."

After a three-year battle with colorectal cancer, which included major surgery and a long spell of chemotherapy, Brian finally got the all-clear last month during a meeting with his consultant at St James's Hospital in Dublin.

Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy performing for Bill Clinton in 1995
Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy performing for Bill Clinton in 1995

But he didn't jump up and down with joy upon hearing the good news.

"It was actually a bittersweet feeling," he says.

"I finished the chemo on the Monday and got my results on the Wednesday.

"I remember leaving the hospital and just walking home really soberly going: 'Right, it's all-clear'.

"On the one hand, of course, I feel very lucky. I'm so relieved to be alive.

"But cancer is such a lottery. Bap has been gone nearly three years, and I've lost three or four people in the last year from it. It's just more evidence of how fleeting life can be.

"An old lover of mine died of brain cancer last year. He'd been diagnosed in June and died in August. It was very, very scary.

"I went to see him in the hospice where he was and it was just horrific. It was the stuff of horrors.

"You wouldn't wish it on anybody. It's just further evidence of how fortunate I was."

Brian may have survived the harrowing ordeal, but several friendships didn't.

"Yes, a couple have fallen by the wayside," he admits.

"Cancer puts manners on people; it puts good manners on people and, in some cases, it puts bad manners on people.

"The people I expected to be here for me were there, and they were wonderful, but one or two others just checked out and disappeared.

"Some people just don't know how to cope.

"You find out who your friends are in a situation like this."

Those friends included Sir Van - knighted the same year Brian was diagnosed - comedian Peter Kay and singer Boy George, all of whom "have been great" over the past three years.

"Van sent me a signed guitar for a fundraiser - how incredibly kind is that? And George gave me one of his trademark hats," he says. "I didn't turn to anybody, because I'm an independent type of person, but these guys weighed in when they heard I needed to raise some money for some of the surgery."

Like Bap, who wrote a regular, deeply touching blog about his cancer battle, Brian opted to share his thoughts with the public and his fans - even going as far as showing his stoma bags, which he calls 'The Twins' and which he'll have to use permanently - on television.

"I had no issues about doing that," he says.

"I would love to be an advocate for men's health, for getting men to check themselves regularly and men to talk about what it's like to be living and breathing.

"Artistically, just day-to-day, getting up on stage knowing that I have a colostomy bag and a urostomy bag and knowing how that affects your life, your confidence, how you make that work for yourself now. So I'd like to think I'd get more into that side of things."

He adds: "I have to consider The Twins all the time.

"They're completely permanent. I'm completely re-plumbed.

"They completely take away your rectum... I'm afraid there's not going to be another one grow back. You just have to get on with it."

Brian, whose best known songs include Captured, Put The Message In A Box and Life, Love And Happiness, is less forthcoming about his love life.

"I'm saying nothing about that; I'll leave you guessing," he replies with a guarded laugh when enquiries are made.

He was quite young when he realised he was gay, and was ostracised at school by other pupils who branded him "queer" and "a sissy".

Even those who stayed friends with him regarded his remarkable voice as "too girly", although it turned out to be his greatest gift and his means of escaping the bigotry and intolerance of his home city to the fame and fortune his 1990 debut album The Great War of Words would bring. Although he was quite open about his sexuality from the age of 16, he didn't tell his parents until he was in his early 20s and a rising star in the music business.

These days brother Stuart is the only family member Brian remains close to.

He still believes Northern Ireland is a hostile place for gay people - and places some of the blame for that on its largest political party.

"On one hand I know some incredibly open-minded people in Northern Ireland and in many ways it's a wonderful place," he says.

"On the other hand, when you have people in power - the DUP - saying 'no, we don't want gay marriage', it's an awful message to be sending out.

"For those people who have trouble understanding what it is to be gay, it just makes things even more difficult, so I'm actually embarrassed by the DUP and how they view gay people."

Brian said he's happy living 100 miles away in Dublin, where same-sex marriage and abortion are legal and society "is not backward".

"Northern Ireland has been through so much; you'd think we'd know better than anyone what it's like to be a minority, to have the law against us," he explains.

"As someone from here, I wish we could just wake up and reflect.

"I'm not asking to change society, just reflect it. Gay people are already here."

The popular singer adds: "I'd love to perform at a Pride march in Belfast, get the message across that we need new political leadership here."

If it were up to him, he "certainly would" legalise same-sex marriage and abortion. He adds: "Men should stop telling women what to do with their bodies." Brian, who now owns the publishing rights to every song he's written over the last three decades, is busy putting the finishing touches to a new EP entitled Recovery - its subject matter isn't hard to guess - which will be released next month.

You're never far away from a Brian Edward Patrick Kennedy concert either, and the man who has sung alongside legends such as Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker might even try to add another novel to the two he wrote in the Noughties - The Arrival Of Fergal Flynn and Roman Song.

"To come close to death, to lose other people, to be this age, you become more aware of just how precious your time is," he says.

Brian is clearly taking heed of the advice he wrote in a song he composed many years ago, before cancer came calling: "Get on with your short life, get on with this sweet precious time..."

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